East and South Asia stand out as the only two regions in the world where female labour force participation rates have decreased over the past two decades and gender gaps increased, according to a new ILO report. According to World Employment and Social Outlook (WESO) report, Trends for Women 2017, shows gender gaps are one of the most pressing challenges facing the world of work. Women are significantly less likely than men to participate in the labour market, and those who do look for work are less likely than men to find it. What’s more, women in the region work in jobs that tend to be both of lower quality and lower pay than their male counterparts.

At the global level, there have been some improvements in reducing gender gaps in labour force participation. Yet this has been less apparent in Asia. In fact, less than one in three women in South Asia are active in the labour market (28.6 per cent), representing a female participation rate that is 51 percentage points less than the rate for males. Moreover, this gap has widened the most over the last decade more than in any other region. In East Asia, the gap is less worrisome as the participation rate for women remains the second highest globally at 61.3 per cent.

In 2014, G20 leaders made a commitment to reduce the gap in participation rates between men and women by 25 per cent by 2025. The report estimates that if this goal was realised worldwide, it has the potential to add $5.8 tn. to the global economy, of which $3.2 tn. would accrue to the Asia-Pacific alone.

“This could also unlock large potential tax revenues – an important consideration as the region adjusts to ‘new normal’ lower levels of economic growth,” said Richard Horne, Economist in the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and Co-author of the report.

Besides these sizable economic benefits, engaging more women in the world of work would have major impacts on well-being. The report finds, for instance, that around 80 per cent of women polled in East Asia and South-East Asia and the Pacific stated that they would rather be working in a paid job than staying solely at home. Yet at the same time, around 40 per cent of working-age women in these regions are not in the labour market, suggesting major obstacles continue to exist that prevent women from fully engaging in paid work.

“The obstacles that prevent women from joining the workforce are still too firmly rooted in the region. We need to improve family-friendly work policies and have better care options for women to be able to take part in the labour market,” said Tomoko Nishimoto, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Over 20 per cent of female respondents in the Asia-Pacific region cited ‘work/family balance’ as a major challenge to labour participation. Worryingly, around 22 per cent of respondents in East Asia – more than any other region – cited ‘lack of affordable care’ as a challenge faced by women.